The movies like Freesolo and Dawn Wall have always made me long to watch the giant El Captain – at dawn.
I’ve been to Yosemite National Park a lot of times. This blog is a collection of all!
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Since I got my camera, a Sony a7 III, I come here very frequently, and photography in Yosemite is very famous. I love to keep my camera lenses on a high zoom to frame the majestic – “The Sun” against the El Captains and Half Dome.
I always wanted to capture the beauty in its raw form. So, here I come with a list of 10 sunrise viewpoint in Yosemite that offers a sweeping view of the Valley from the top. However, remember, incredible heights offer a great view as well as little hard work to climb!
What are some of your favorite things about California? Do you want to know more? Check out the blog I’ve prepared for you! For a romantic evening, you can also visit stunning Yosemite sunset spots! Trust me, you’ll be mesmerized.
Table of Contents
How to Reach Yosemite National Park?
Yosemite is one of the oldest mountain towns in California which is a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. I began visiting Yosemite in my college days nearly, 7 years ago and still counting.
It sits in the Sierra Mountain ranges, only 3 hours away from Sacramento. Yosemite is a 1,200 sq. miles national park known for granite monoliths like El Captains and Half Dome. You can reach Yosemite National Park by flight, or by road.
By Flight: The closest airport is The Fresno-Yosemite Airport (FAT) which is 1.5 hours from the south entrance. You can also take it at San Francisco, San Jose, or Oakland airports as the fares are cheaper.
However, you’ve to rent a car outside the airport to explore and enter the park.
By Car: If you are coming from the west, take Highway 120 or 140. You can take the south entrance, via Wawona. If you want to enter from the east, then take the Tioga Pass (accessible only in summer).
Entering via Hetch Hetchy Valley from the northwest is another great access point for exploring Yosemite National Park. I hope now you have a clear idea of how to get to Yosemite National Park swiftly and on time!
Can you Enter Yosemite Before 6 am?
Yes, you can enter Yosemite National Park before 6 am and visit spots except for Horsetail Fall or Firefall Festival in February. You do not need to buy a temporary peak-hour vehicle reservation to drive through Yosemite.
The system of reservation was started during COVID-19 and continued till 2022 to limit traffic congestion and its spread. Now, you can simply drive and reach the main gate entrance, where you pay the entrance fee and enter Yosemite.
Somehow I think, the “no reservation policy” will increase overcrowding, therefore, reach early to avoid queues at the main entrance. Also, I would recommend taking Yosemite Valley transport tours and visiting off-season to enjoy its raw beauty.
Best Places for Watching Sunrise at Yosemite
1. El Capitan Meadow
How to reach: Drive to reach the spots which climbers call the North American Wall (NA Wall). This place sits north of the river and at the end of El Captain Bridge.
On your way back out of Yosemite Valley, you cross the base of El Captain, and El Cap Straight, on the left, that spot is the most iconic spot to witness Yosemite sunrise. This rock on Earth is heaven for climbers, and explorers.
The first time I saw Yosemite’s granite wall which is more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor, 3 times as tall as the Eifel Tower, it brought tears to my eyes. As the sun shed its first rays on the lush grounded meadows, it looks splendid!
It was in 2017, I came here early morning to witness the magical sunrise. As the sun rises, Half Domes cast its shadow onto the El Captain, the rock formation, and the surrounding place, making me wonder, how these things can be so perfect.
I got my shawl and beverage with me. After reaching the spot, I carried all these items in hand and walked to the east side of the meadow. I followed the path, it was fenced on both sides. I got myself a spot, sat there, and witnessed the magical sunrise!
- El Captain Meadow is under restoration, so stand at the viewing area close to the road to witness the magical sunrise of Yosemite
- Carry headlamps with red lights as it preserves your night vision
- Dogs are not allowed
2. Valley View
How to reach: Drive leaving the El Captain Picnic Areaback and follow for a tight curve after 1.5 miles. On Northside take the exit to the 140 and then turn to Southside Rd. just near Pohono Bridge
Visiting Valley View in the summer season and seeing the sunrise was on my bucket list for years now. On Instagram, I saw a lot of pictures of the sun coming out between the giant granite formations turning the place into a Disney movie set. I wanted to come here.
So, in the year 2022, I came here to see that it was not like a movie set but nature in its raw form. Even if you come to Yosemite for one day, do visit Valley View during sunrise.
The smell of pine around me, the sound of babbling Merced River, El Captain, and twin Cathedral Rocks to my left, Bridalveil Fall on my right, and the huge sun in front of me made me paralyzed for a few seconds wondering where I am.
In my “Sunrise travel diary” this place, Valley View is the best place for watching the sunrise at Yosemite. The vibrant colors and reflection of the sun on the river are so breathtaking!
I love it, as this Yosemite sunrise spot sits just a few steps away from the parking area. I reached here around 5.30 am, I was feeling cold, so I set up my camera and was coming inside the car to warm up. It was then I got a glimpse of a local mule deer!
- Valley View is also an epic spot to witness the Yosemite sunset. I recommend coming on a full moon night, just imagine seeing the Milky Way too
- Valley View sits 4.5 miles down the “Valley Loop”. The loop is a one-way road
- Park your car before Pohono Bridge, there is no official parking sign
- Come here 45 minutes before sunrise
- Carry headlamp
- If you can then hike up to Happy Isles for stunning views
3. Panorama Trail
How to reach: Drive from Wawona Road to Glacier Point Road at the Chinquapin intersection. We started our hike taking the Mist trail
Soniya and I hiked the Panorama Trail in Yosemite Park to witness some astounding views of nature. Have you ever seen trails leading through colorful meadows spotting Illiloutte Falls, Half Dome, and the Clark Range on the way? I’ve seen it!
In my experience, the Four Mile trail and Panorama Trail is the best day hiking trail in Yosemite (covering 2 trails in one day can be strenuous if you’re a first-timer). For the best first morning light view, you should reach the top of Glacier Point Road. I guarantee your perspective of sunrise views will change
It’s so magical! Personally, I came here for hiking and to spend time seeing the sun going down. Moreover, the Panorama trail has a 3,200 ft. elevation gain which might be a problem to many but boom to climbers to see stunning mountain views.
- Hiking Panorama Viewpoint is 8.5 miles one way
- Sits at the top of Glacier Point Road and hence is seasonal. In colder months, stay at the lower elevation
4. Wawona Swinging Bridge
How to reach: Drive through South Wawona to reach the end of Forest. You can also take the Chilnualna Falls Road and then follow the signboards
Swinging Bridge is the best place to watch the sunrise in Yosemite, away from the crowd’s hustling and bustling, that is what my mother said. I did not get the chance to witness the sunrise from Swinging Bridge. My mother had, Let me narrate what I heard!
My mother loves to explore “unnamed secluded spots” to feel the unique wilderness of nature. And, that longing brought her here at Wawona Swinging Bridge. During summer the wildflowers pop up around the Merced River making it look glorious!
Yosemite Swinging Bridge has been fixed and solid and it does not swing anymore! Whereas, Wawona Swinging Bridge really swings! She told me that first-time hikers can come here as the elevation gain is not high and it is only 0.75 miles round trip.
The bridge leads through redwoods, cedar trees, and Ponderosa pines which make the hike more adventurous. The bridge spans 40 ft. over the Merced River making it ideal to swing (carefully) and watch the sunrise!
- Wawona Swinging Bridge is different from Yosemite Swinging Bridge
- There are poison oak and ticks, so, be careful
- Granite bridge can be slick in some places, so remember to taste adventure within your own risk
- Offers an incredible view of the whole Wawona area. Also, it is the best spot to watch the sunrise in Yosemite park alone
5. Vista Point Big Oak Flat
How to reach: Drive along Highway 120 from the west. Remember, to check the exact location on Google Maps. This road is less traveled by!
Yosemite has a plethora of scenic points but Vista Point on Big Oak Flat is the offbeat spot to witness the best sunrise in Yosemite. The sun gives off an orange, yellow, and golden glow across the cliffs making the mist disappear slowly.
The aerial perspective is enchanting but the steep winding road to reach the top is equally significant. The first time, when I saw the first light hitting the valley my eyes were not prepared to witness such unique views. I was not able to process such beauty!
The sun painted the surroundings in golden color casting a gorgeous reflection on the windy river passing through the park dotted with marshes, and spectacular mountains. I arrived here 30 minutes prior to the sunrise alpenglow!
- Take Highway I 20 to reach Vista Point on Big Oak Flat
- Vista Point on Big Oak Flat is an offbeat location to see the sunrise in Yosemite.
6. Firefall at Horsetail Fall
How to reach? Park your car at the Yosemite Falls parking area and walk 1.5 miles to reach the spot
As the Earth tilts at a certain angle, the delicate factors of natural balance in the creation of the most unpredictable flow of illusory lava that looks no less than a fiery specter. The waterfall looks like a stream of fire falling against the granite.
However, Firefall at Horsetail Fall is famous for sunset. I wanted to look at it during sunrise. During the 10 minutes of sunset time, the specific angle of the sun creates red hues that make El Captain appear in the fire!
The sunrise at Horsetail Fall in Yosemite was not similar to the sunset pictures. El Captain sank into darkness, but what I saw that day is the most stunning sight to treasure. There was absolutely no crowd, people come here during sunset.
As the sun came out, I saw the slightest haze diminishing making the place as spectacular as Valley View. Truly, I did not see the Firefall but enjoyed the view in calmness with a cup of coffee in my hand. I was there for 3 hours – I saw the sky turning from black to pink-purple and finally to brilliant blue.
- If you’re coming on the 10th, 11th, or 12th of February or the 24th, 25th, or 26th of February 2023, you need to buy an entrance reservation. This is to limit the crowd for the Yosemite Firefall festival
- February is the ideal time but you can come in any season. October and early November is not a good time to see the stream of fire falling
7. Tunnel View
How to reach? Take the South entrance to enter the park and reach the viewpoint directly. If you’re taking other entrances, take the Wawona Road to get to the point.
If you type “where to watch the sunrise in Yosemite” on the Google search bar, the first name that pops up is –Tunnel View. As the warm amber light spills across the valley, forest, and rugged mountains – everything at Tunnel View looks magical.
I came here in 2019 winters. I stood at the top and saw the snow sprinkled over the evergreens and as the first light came up, the place became still. It is no wonder why Tunnel View ranked as the best spot on The US National Register of Historic Places.
During sunrise at Tunnel View Yosemite, you can see El Captain, Half Dome, and the cascading waterfall – everything adds unique dimensions. Do not forget to get your tripod, as this place gets crowded and it might be difficult to shoot photos.
Tip: The place is crowded. Hence reach early to be able to park your car
8. Glacier Point
How to reach? Take the Glacier Point Road to reach the point
Mostly, you spend your summer, dipping in the water with friends and having food on the picnic tables. So, why not this year, plan something different? Come to the wonderland, Glacier Point, for classic views of the valley, spectacular cliffs, and Yosemite Fall.
Glacier Point is known as the best spot to witness the sunrise in Yosemite Valley as this place sits at a higher elevation. Hence, you can enjoy incredible views without any obstruction. It is at 7,214 ft. above!
Remember, if you’re planning for Glacier Point, you’ve to get up really EARLY. The drive is up the hill and takes a minimum of one hour. Worry not, there is enough parking space. You just have to reach early to enjoy the first glimmers of orange light.
- Accessible only in the summer season – from May to Early November
- The road is a drive up the mountain for 1 hour
9. Sentinel Bridge
How to reach? Reach Sentinel Bridge and from here walk a little interior
If you’re thriving for an easy hike plus to witness an amazing show of nature come to Sentinel Bridge, the best sunrise spot in Yosemite National Park. As the orange, and yellow colors slowly glides, the sun burst forth and steals the show.
The reflection of Half Domes on the Merced River and the lush green meadows and wildflowers around the riverbank make it a favorite spot for photographers. Standing there on the top gives you a 360-degree view of the entire valley.
Truly, I came here in the evening to see the sunset. Believe me, I saw the sky turning pink and slowly into purple. However, the place was crowded so I did not spend the whole evening. So, prepare yourself accordingly.
Tip: To witness the perfect alpine glow come here 20 minutes prior the sunrise
10. Merced River
How to reach? Drive to Cathedral Beach
If you’re searching for the best sunrise lakes in Yosemite come to Merced River, one of my favorite spots in Yosemite National Park. The water sits above 8, 000 feet. I love driving through gorges and canyons to witness the spectacular landscape.
In 2017, my mother brought me here. I was amazed by the river surrounded by cedar bark, pine poles, and black oak. The alpine glow on the walls and trees as the sun rises makes it spellbound. The sky burst into different shades of orange!
Watching the exhilarating waterfall in the distance is another attractive feature of the place. After the sunrise view, you can hang out a little and then dip into the river. Floating on the Merced River is an enthralling experience.
Yosemite National Park Photography Tours
During the winter, the timing of the sunrise and sunset will be altered and the snow on the ground will provide a unique dimension to your photographs. I feel snowy winter months in Yosemite are the best! You should carry a tire chain for your vehicle as roads are snowy.
Meadows, the sound of the raging water, a clear view of Yosemite Falls, or a view of deer, birds, bears, and various types of plants makes Yosemite sunrise in summer completely different from winter and vice versa!
During fall, the color of Yosemite becomes gorgeous. The water looks crystal clear. I feel it is the best time for a nature walk. In a nutshell, Yosemite National Park looks different in different seasons.
Hence, there is no best time to visit Yosemite for photography. Every season is good! It’s YOU who make every photo talk. So, for such good photos of Yosemite sunrise, make sure you’re all prepared.
I use Pinterest to research and know the spot better before visiting. Try taking photos from different angles, rather than the center view try the top view, or down. Add your own perspective.
After that, play with the camera settings – change the aperture level, ISO, lenses angles to get a high-quality picture. You can buy wide-angle zoom lenses like Tamron 17-28mm F/2.8 Di III RXD or anything else. Play with your camera settings!
Tips to see the sunrise in Yosemite National Park
- Always check the official website of the Yosemite spot before visiting the area. The website will offer you information like permits, fees, opening and closing times, the hiking trail condition, activities, things to carry, and more
- Always plan to reach a minimum of 45 minutes prior the sunrise. If you reach early you have plenty of time to set up your camera as per the environment to click the best shot
- Download Google Offline map, because many parts of Yosemite do not have cell phone service. Remember, you’ve to know the parking spots, and the exact location to reach on time
- Use Google to know the timing of sunrise at a specific location. The best photo of sunrise in Yosemite comes after the sun touches the horizon. In a word, check the weather condition
- Plan everything beforehand, even if it’s off-season. Remember, Yosemite is a very popular place, and people from different parts of the world come here. Therefore, make the reservation like lodging, via Recreation. Gov. prior 3 months
Some areas can be unsafe, so please do not adventure without knowing the land better, use your wisdom, and be cautious. Every trail has a different elevation gain, so be sure which one suits you.
Staying overnight is the best way to spot Yosemite’s sunrise without getting delayed. I recommend staying on the park’s camping grounds. In this way, you can kill two birds with one stone – Yosemite sunrise, and Yosemite sunset.
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FAQ: Sunrise in Yosemite National Park
1. How far from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park?
A. Yosemite is 170 miles away from San Francisco. It will take you 3 hours to reach if you take I-580 E and CA-120 E road.
2. Do I need a permit to enter Yosemite National Park?
A. The requirement to get a permit or reservation to enter Yosemite National Park is no more valid from 2023. You’ve to pay a fee to enter the park.
3. Can you drive into Yosemite at 5 am?
A. Yes, you can drive into Yosemite at 5 am if you pay the fee at the main entrance. There are very few spots that need a prior reservation.
4. Is Tunnel View better at sunrise or sunset?
A. Tunnel View looks different during sunrise and sunset. Sunset offers better lighting for photographers whereas, sunrise is more refreshing.